College Experience Topic Descriptions

We estimated a topic model with 13 topics, 840 open-ended responses, and a 300 word dictionary. (after removing stop words). The resulting topics are interpreted and described in the accompanying sections, and the responses reflect four main topic branches: Expanded Possibilities and Relaxation, **More and Better Social Connections **, Educational, and Small Role. The detailed methods for estimating the model can be found in the section on Topic Modeling and Interpretation.

What role did the arts play in your college experience, both positive and negative?

Students largely reported the positive role the arts played in their college experiences. Some students engaged in the arts primarily through their classroom experience (Educational), while some indicated that the arts played, at best, only a Small Role in their college experience. Even in these categories, the role of the arts in college was acknowledged as generally a positive one.

It is also important to note that there were some negative comments expressed by students about engaging in the arts in college — though these comments were often part of a more overall positive response, or were used as a point-counterpoint in a response. This ambivalence is present in the response to a few different questions, suggesting that there is a diversity of experience. When students did indicate a negative role for the arts, it typically stemmed from either their frustration at not achieving as good grades or outcomes from their arts endeavors, the time the arts required adversely affecting their other coursework grades or focus, or that arts participation steered them to consider or choose what they perceived to be a potentially less secure or lower paying jobs in an arts field.


Students indicated the positive role they felt the arts played in their college experience, providing opportunities for enrichment under the two major topic areas of Expanded Possibilities and Relaxation and More and Better Social Connections.

Expanded Possibilities and Relaxation

The major node Expanded Possibilities and Relaxation contains student responses that include those related to opening up students to consider different perspectives (Broadened Worldview) or changed personal goals or skills (Life Path and Improvement). Part of these expanded possibilities cited also included new or altered career goals or paths (Encouraged Exploration) or a more enriched or fulfilled life (Personal Enrichment). Interwoven throughout these topic areas is the idea that the arts created opportunities for relaxation and stress-relief from academic pressures, with this most specifically being described in the subnode, Break from Classes.

Break from Classes

Having something relaxing and creative to engage their time and attention outside of the classroom (Break from Classes) was reported by students as an important role the arts played in their college lives. They also reported it as a useful pastime, adding to their enjoyment of their coursework and a way to develop additional skills.

“A chance to relax and take a break from school.”

“The arts provided a space for sanity and creative problem solving. A nice escape from academic and business related works, while still building professional, positive, and useful life skills.”

“It gave me a creative outlet and a chance to focus on something other than school work.”

“The arts provided a relief from academic responsibilities, but also an outlet for creativity when there was no space for it in the classroom.”

“Taking the classes were an outlet for me. Although, they were hard work and time consuming it allowed me to have an outlet from the typical science courses that I took. I enjoyed being on north, sitting outside and using my time to visualize my surroundings in a way I normally wouldn’t.”

“Positive: It was a nice break from most of my school work (mathematics). Negative: None.”

Broadened Worldview

Students reported the role the arts played in giving them a Broadened Worldview as a positive outcome. They often described this role as expanding their cultural awareness, giving them greater empathy, and developing new ways of thinking.

“Negative- my grades in art classes besides creative writing Positive- given me an alternate world view as opposed to the view touted by my major.”

“It has broadened my world view in a positive way.”

“Often a great opportunity in and out of class to expand my understanding of art and other ways of thinking.”

“A great way to interact with people from all over the world and share common human experiences”

“Provided me with enjoyment and an expanded worldview and more accepting of others cultures”

“I began to think in new ways and think about the beliefs of others.”

Exploration and Development

As the students have reported, the arts were a mechanism for them to explore their interests, passions and career aspirations, and also a way for them to broadly develop themselves both personally and professionally. While arts participation Encouraged Exploration, leading to changes in perspective, expression, and academic goals, they also led to Personal Enrichment in professional, cultural, social, and communication contexts.

Encouraged Exploration

Student respondents described the arts here as allowing them to explore their interests and values, often unrelated to their major but important to their career choices (Encouraged Exploration). This exploration led to a wide range of impacts – everything from changed worldview to creative expression. They also indicated the importance of this exploration as an alternative to the stress of their academics.

This survey question is one of only a few we asked that elicited open-ended responses around career decisions and goals – aside from the direct question focused on career impacts. The student pool of respondents does not reflect a larger than expected number of arts majors (they appear in similar numbers to the overall student body at the time of the survey), so these career influences are likely spread across the range of majors (as is evidenced by some of the response quotes).

“Allowed me to explore my passions that were unrelated to my major.”

“The arts have helped me maintain my values, and realize my passions and goals.”

“It positively allowed me to de-stress from all the schoolwork. nothing negative.”

“Architecture served as a possible career path, and exploring it really opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about the physical world.” 

“Helping me get through tough times, and influencing my potential career goals.”

Personal Enrichment

Learning about themselves and developing a sense of purpose and balance are the main takeaways from student arts engagement reported here (Personal Enrichment). The language indicates a very personal connection to the benefits of their participation across a wide range of topics – professional, cultural, expressive, leadership, social, communicative. When the reported role of the arts was personally negative it was typically related to the time it took to participate or the financial burdens the arts placed on audience members or career practitioners.

“It was truly a launching point for the rest of my life in terms of my career. It exposed me to all of the aspects of the music industry, some positive and some negative. It provided me with opportunities for personal fulfillment and self expression that have given me a strong purpose in life. Negatively, it prevented me from “getting out there” sometimes. I had to practice so much that sometimes I felt like a bit of a shut-in. It took work to figure out how to balance out practicing and leisure.”

“Positively helped me to communicate better and be more confident about my abilities.”

“My experiences have been positive, enriching my understanding of self and cultural expression.”

“Majority of the artwork I did in college was for homework, but it lead me to choose artistic classes outside of the arts school that could be a bit more free.”

“Peer and community involvement, a very positive experience. I learned a lot about myself and what kinds of art I like, and why I like them, giving me a better sense of myself.”

“Positively, I think I gained self confidence. Negatively, it has lead me to aspire to be something that does not pay money.”

More and Better Social Connections

The role the arts in college play in creating More and Better Social Connections is described through the broadly reported sub-topics of Fun Social Activities, Personal Enhancement, Greater Involvement, and Social Connections. In almost every one of these categories students report the importance of engaging in the arts in their creating interpersonal connections to others – leading to new and improved perspectives, skills, friendships, involvement on campus, growth, and overall happiness. The arts set the table for these social interactions by acting as a shared interest or pursuit, a shared audience experience, an opportunity to stretch oneself personally or communally, or a welcome respite from academic pressure.

Fun Social Activities

Students report that arts participation in college led to them attending Fun Social Activities and events, leading to new and improved social connections, things to do, often at little or no cost, and an additional element of fun to their college experience.

“The arts helped me find a social space. Most of my friends had been musicians in high school, which helped us become friends in college.”

“The arts played a positive role during my freshman year when I lived in South Quad and there were weekly arts and crafts nights in the Union. These were fun, allowed me to socialize, convenient (since it was so close to where I lived), and it was fun because I got to make cool stuff for free!…”

“They gave me something to do, and I love doing things. They helped me be involved. They helped me support my friends-my friends who love to sing, dance, and otherwise perform or share. They helped me learn. They helped me share and step out of my comfort zone. They helped me be proud of who I am and what I can do.”

“Fun diversion from school, social experience with friends, good way to meet new people.”

“The arts have been present throughout – Architecture, Design, Music – it’s been fun and challenging to be involved in all these things.”

Personal Enhancement

The Personal Enhancement topic speaks to the personal enjoyment, growth, and improved well-being that participation in the arts in college brought to the student respondents. While the Entertainment topic area speaks for itself, the Personal Growth and Well-Being topic is more nuanced – recognizing both the personal benefits to a student’s social and skill development and overall happiness through arts participation, but also the struggle that participation can create around time management.

“I think that they were mostly centered around my own personal enjoyment more than anything. The arts were an opportunity to get outside of the schoolwork.”


The arts play a number of roles in students’ college experience, including the well understood role of providing entertainment and enjoyment in their lives (Entertainment).

“The arts provided me with entertainment as well as service opportunities, and I enjoyed participating/attending them.”

“The arts did not play a negative role. The arts served as a source of enjoyment for me.” 

“MMB is very stressful, but all of the wonderful opportunities outweighed the anxiety I sometimes had. And all of the arts opportunities here made it easy to just decide to go see or do something one night when you are free.”

Personal Growth and Well-Being

The growth students experience through arts participation was reported as both personal and professional, but it is the arts’ contribution to dealing with the academic and social pressures at college that connects this growth with struggle (Personal Growth and Well-Being). Skills, expression, stress relief, social connections and levels of happiness improve. However, the cost is also acknowledged with the time tradeoffs arts participation requires for the benefits it bestows.

“Helped me grow as a person and helped build skills that I couldn’t learn in the classroom, but also took a lot of my time which took away from academics.”

“Amazing, I met a lot of amazing people because of it, and grew as a professional.”

“It helped me make a lot of friends who are a lot like me. I think it may have been what got me through a tough academic schedule; it gave me something to look forward to every day.”

“Without my arts experience, my resume would be empty and I would probably be medicated. Though it is sometimes frustrating to work with others under the pressure and demanding schedules of college, my arts experiences keep my life together.”

“POSITIVE! I makes me happy.”

“Gave me an outlet for stress during my classes a chance to continue my art through college definitely took a lot of time out of my schedule.”

“It was a good outlet for my own artistic expression; however, being involved in women’s glee club was pretty time consuming and stressful at times. Overall, I’m happy I did it; my college experience would not have been the same without it…if anything, it just helped with my time management skills. It was also good socially!

Greater Involvement

The role the arts played in motivating students to become more involved while in college was true both in greater arts participation and in encouraging students to be more involved in other aspects of University life (Greater Involvement). This greater involvement was also reflected in students changing their involvement profile to create a more balanced and varied college experience.

“My involvement with the arts helped me to become more engaged with the University environment. It also increased my social skills and taught me how to become involved in activities I was interested in.”

“Seeing my friends involved in the arts inspired me to become involved.”

“The only negative would be the cost, the positive is that it definitely increased my cultural awareness and appreciation. It also increased my motivation to become involved, specifically with dance.”

“I think it has added great balance to my experience. While I haven’t been involved too extensively, I treasure the memories I have had of engaging in the arts.”

Social Connections

When students reported meeting new people through the arts in college (Social Connections) it resulted in new ideas, new skills (New People and New Skills), or new friends (Meet New Friends) – especially as they believed they were students they might not otherwise have met without their shared arts connections.

New People and New Skills

In meeting new people and gaining new skills through the arts, student reported gaining broader perspectives, new ideas, and interactions outside of their majors they would not have otherwise experienced. It is the more diverse environment for learning that (New People and New Skills) brings that distinguishes this category from (Meet New Friends), which is primarily about developing new interpersonal connections.

“Helped me gain broader perspectives, learn to ask meaningful questions, and made my college experience more well-rounded.

“Met new people, learned new skills, entertainment backgrounds.”

“Positive – networking, learning about different forms of art; negative – time consuming.”

“Introduced me to new ideas. Also introduced me to some huge egos and assholes.”

“Theatre and creative writing made me meet new people and hear new perspectives from people around me.”

“It forced me to interact with people outside of my major. These were very positive interactions that I would not have otherwise had.”

“I think being involved with the arts definitely helped me develop my communication and leadership skills.”

Meet New Friends

Meeting new people that became part of one’s social network as friends was a reported role of the arts in college (Meet New Friends). These new friends also created community for students through arts organization membership or other interest group connections.

“Gave me a chance to meet a lot of great friends and be a part of a group with a common interest. It also gave me something to focus on besides schoolwork, which was really important. However, it also took a ton of time out of my schedule, which prevented me from getting involved in other student organizations. Band was my one extracurricular activity.”

“The arts gave me a place to take part in extracurriculars that I really enjoyed. It also helped me meet new people with similar interests!”

“Being involved in the arts gave me a community within the huge Michigan community; I was able to meet people who had similar interests as me. The friends I have made through my involvement in the arts became my closest friends.”

“Positive: Gave me a place to go when I didn’t have anything to do, I really don’t participate in drinking so the events are perfect for hanging out with friends and getting to know what is going on and meeting new people. Negative: Perhaps if it is a really popular event it becomes less enjoyable because there is a large amount of people waiting at each activity.

“The arts played the role of a fun activity to do, one that made me feel that I was getting involved. It also was positive in that it helped me meet new and interesting people.”


Focusing on the expected role the arts had in students’ learning and educational experience in college, this section of responses focuses strongly on students enrolling in arts courses, majoring in the arts, or otherwise engaging in the arts more through their academic work (Educational). We know from another question in the Arts Engagement Project survey (Barriers) that students want to have opportunities to engage the arts through classes, but are often unable to due to Academic Program Requirements, University Priorities, Departmental Segregation, and Distance Between Campuses.

“I really enjoyed learning about art history on a global scale and visiting a variety of museums in and around the Ann Arbor/Detroit/Toledo area. University of Michigan’s Art History Department is one of the best on campus and inspired me (a pre-med student) to continue to pursue my love of art by studying through a historical lens. I went from deciding to take one art history class for my LSA humanities credit to considering a minor in Art History to now majoring in Art History along with my original science major. I feel like I understand so much more about the world through art and I’m so glad I was able to learn about cultures I had limited to no exposure to previously.”

“I took a few art history classes and enjoyed quite a bit, and I also took a class on creative writing, art of film, and history of rock music. Each of these classes were some of the best I have taken at the University.”

“Being that LSA Music is one of my majors, arts (namely music) have been a very regular part of my college experience. There were times, however, that I wished I could be part of other arts activities on campus, such as participating in theater groups, but my busy schedule made that near impossible because of the time commitment they require.” 

“I’ve really enjoyed the classes that required me to go to the U of M museums. I went to a couple of musicals and I had never been to one before, and it was a really good experience.”

Small Role

Unable to Participate Much

Many of the students responding specifically stated that the arts “didn’t play a role” in their college experience. Other responses pointed to an inability to attend arts events as much as they might have wanted, though this did not dampen the generally positive role they felt the arts had played for them during their time at the University.

“Arts played a small role in my college experience. When I did participate, it was a positive experience I attended various arts events that I thoroughly enjoyed, so I would say that arts played a slightly positive role.”

“Positive: Was able to attend a wide variety of fun events that showcased the immense talent we have on this campus Negative: I wish there was more time to participate in groups!”

“Mainly I missed the arts and loved the few events I was able to attend.”

“I didn’t get to participate as much as I wanted to.”

“They didn’t play that much of a role in college.”

“The arts played no significant role, they were neither positive nor negative.”

Small Role

Students who report that the arts played only a small role in their college experience (Small Role) typically indicated it was because they had participated a limited number of times as an audience member, or as time allowed. While reporting this role as generally positive, they also said even this limited interaction increased their appreciation or the arts and artists.

“Mainly played a neutral role. I appreciated the arts when I was exposed to them, but that was a limited amount of experiences.”

“I have not been very involved in the arts in college – however I did attend a handful of performances which I have always enjoyed and appreciated. I would not say however that they had a large impact on me. While I am not an arts person, I can appreciate the arts.”

“I wouldn’t say they played a large enough role for me to have experienced anything negative, but I’ve definitely learned to be more appreciative of people in the arts as a result of my college experience.” 

“I’ve participated in more arts activities this year than in years prior. I’ve attended a couple plays and dance performances, which have had positive impacts as I’ve gone to support friends and really enjoyed myself. There really hasn’t been a negative aspect to my slightly increased participation in the arts.